Hectic parleys are underway for the past several days between leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh, those in the state government, as well as the ones holding organisational positions and legislators, and central leaders of the party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The state unit has also been the subject of several speculations and multiple reports in the media, based on information leaked from within about imminent change in the UP council of ministers and the state unit. This is uncharacteristic of not just the party but the entire saffron brotherhood too. This comes close on the heels of several legislators and national leaders, including Union Minister Santosh Gangwar’s harsh criticism of the government and the Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath.
The discussions are related to the declining political fortunes of the party in the state, which elects the largest number of members to the Lok Sabha, and the sheer ineptitude of the state government during the catastrophic second phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. If this was not enough, the public’s criticism of the government has been met with extreme arrogance.
The crucial state, governed authoritatively by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath in a manner which replicates the highly centralised Modi-model of governance at the Centre, is due to go in for Assembly polls next February-March. It goes without saying that retaining power in the state will be vital to the party’s prospects in the 2024 parliamentary polls.
Even a sub-par performance, compared to 2017, when the BJP won 312 of the 403 seats at stake with a commanding vote share of 39.67 per cent, would force the party on the defensive in the run-up to the final battle two years later.
BJP’s worry stems from that fact that historically, the party has not been at its commanding best in defending states where it is in power. After the BJP’s spectacular victory in 2019 parliamentary polls, it lost Maharashtra and Jharkhand that year while barely clutching on to power in Haryana. Although the party, in November 2020, emerged triumphant in Bihar by winning more seats than its ally, Janata Dal (U), this was after a tough challenge from the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led opposition, which was led by Tejaswi Yadav in the absence of his father, Lalu Prasad.
Although the BJP was voted back to power in Assam, it was because the campaign was led by a strong regional leadership comprising Himanta Biswa Sarma and Sarbananda Sonowal. For the Central leadership, opting for the secondary position during a state election while propping up local leaders is against the BJP’s grain in the Modi-era. Emergence of powerful regional leaders in several states has the capacity to alter the power balance within the party because satraps can form a joint front against the Central leadership on specific issues.
This problem has dogged the Modi-Shah duo since 2017 in UP. It may be recalled that initially after the verdict was declared, the Central leaders identified the then Union Minister of State (independent charge) for IT, Manoj Sinha, to be the new Chief Minister. At the last minute, Yogi Adityanath, who for long aspired for that position, secured an unexpected backing of the RSS brass and this lobby prevailed over Modi.
Within the political edifice that the sangh parivar is, there is a long tradition of placing counter-balancing personalities to ensure that the RSS is not reduced to irrelevance by a powerful and popular individualistic leader. The party had done this with Vajpayee throughout his tenure and decided that it was time to prop up an ideological mirror-image of Modi in the state, which although elects him is not his political home base.
Among the BJP Chief Ministers, Adityanath has functioned most independently and has also secured a large following with aggressive of hardline Hindutva politics, especially on issues like inter-faith marriages, conversions and covert support to vigilantism. This ensured that Yogi remained in good books of the RSS leadership although they have no real differences with Modi.
On the question of alterations in the party unit and state government due to erosion of trust and faith stemming from ham-fisted handling of the medical and economic crises, the dominant section of RSS leaders at the forefront of the internal parleys are reportedly of the view that the charges against the Centre too are similar. In that case, why should Yogi’s wings alone be clipped, by either asking him to handover important portfolios or have a person who works in greater cohesion with the Prime Minister’s Office as a Deputy CM.
It must be noted that Adityanath has begun to counter the damage to his image by taking refuge under a denial mode. In media interactions, Yogi has claimed, even before signs of this emerging, that the second wave of the pandemic has been arrested and the state was all geared up for a possible third wave.
Additionally, Yogi denied under-reporting and data manipulation and claimed that the matter of floating human corpses in the Ganga and other rivers has been overblown. He claimed these visuals could be seen even when there was no COVID-19. He also denied large number of deaths of teachers deputed on duty during the panchayat polls.
Although there is no overt Modi vs Yogi tussle within the BJP and the sangh parivar, the tension and the strain is palpable. UP is the only state besides Assam, where the Chief Minister commands personal loyalty of legislators in numbers that are large enough to make the Central leadership unsure of the extent to which it can coerce him into a decision. Sarma incidentally was not the first choice of the Modi-Shah combine and they were forced to relent because of his support. The backing of the RSS brass for Adityanath, something which Sarma does not have, makes the imbroglio over leadership and reshuffle more tricky.
The significant setback for the BJP in the panchayat polls have been dismissed by Adityanath, as well as the Central leadership. They have contended that local body polls are not an indicator of which way the political winds are blowing. But the erosion in popularity of both Modi and Yogi is evident and the government and party have not just to act but it also has to be seen that it has responded to the rising public anger.
Coupled with these developments and a solid performance in panchayat elections, the Samajwadi Party leaders are eagerly waiting for the khela to begin. There is also the fact that a large number of BJP’s legislators were previously inducted from other parties and they are reportedly beginning to turn restive and unsure of re-election if they enter the fray as BJP candidates.
The Bahujan Samaj Party’s supremo, Mayawati, has maintained silence as the BJP unravels. She is certainly waiting for the opportune moment to make the best picking. The BJP for the moment can take comfort in the fact that the opposition is not united because the Congress, under Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s leadership is priming to expand its political influence. On the other hand, the BJP cannot take for granted its ally, the Apna Dal led by Anupriya Patel. She is learnt to be restive as neither she nor her UP Legislative Council member husband, have been inducted into either the Central or state ministries.
Likewise, the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party led by Om Prakash Rajbhar, which was part of the BJP-led alliance in 2017 is now estranged. These smaller parties may not individually be significant, but when combined with a resurgent bigger party like the SP, the BJP will have a challenge on their hands.
But before countering the external threats, the BJP has to first set its house in order. Both the Central and state government require alterations, if at all to signal to the people that Modi is alive to their sense of losing faith in his abilities. At the same time, Yogi too would like to convey he remains the master of ceremonies, as far as UP was concerned.